The main problem with religious answers to life’s problems is that religious claims may generally be false. Some might reply that even if religious claims are false, we ought to live as if they are true. After all, what does it hurt to believe comforting stories that might be true? There may be something to this argument—life is hard so why not find comfort where you can as long as you do not force your beliefs on others. But there are many replies to this line of reasoning—that religious belief is basically a docile and good thing—that do not need to appeal to inquisitions, religious wars, human sacrifice, or other examples of religious cruelty over all of recorded history. Nor do they need to appeal to the anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, authoritarian, medieval nature of many religious institutions, or to the personal guilt, shame, and fear that often result from those beliefs.
Religious belief may be just harmful in general. There is a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births and abortions, corruption, income inequality, and more.[i] While no causal relationship has been established, the 2009 United Nations list of the twenty best countries to live in shows the least religious nations of the world generally at the top.[ii]Only in the United States, which is ranked as the 13th best country to live in, would we say that religious belief is strong relative to other countries. Moreover, virtually all the countries with comparatively little religious belief ranked comparatively high on the list of best countries to live in, while the majority of countries with strong religious belief ranked comparatively low on the list. In fact often the overlap is striking.[iii] While correlation does not equal causation, such considerations should give pause to those who claim religious belief is beneficial. There is good reason to doubt that religious belief makes people’s lives go better, and some powerful reasons to believe it makes their lives go worse.
Again none of the foregoing discussion shows that any particular religion is false. But at the very least it is debatable whether religious belief benefits humanity, or that we are better off living as if these stories are true. One could even maintain that religious beliefs are the most damaging kind of beliefs that humans can hold. Consider that Christianity rose in power as the Roman Empire declined in the 4th century, resulting in the marginalization of the Greek science the Romans had inherited. Had the scientific achievements of the Greeks been built upon throughout the Middle Ages, it is possible that we might live in an unimaginably better world today. Carl Sagan made this same point some thirty years ago:
Something akin to laws of Nature was once glimpsed in a determinedly polytheistic society, in which some scholars toyed with a form of atheism. This approach of the pre-Socratics was, beginning in about the fourth century B.C., [quelled] by Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian theologians. If the skein of historical causality had been different—if the brilliant guesses of the atomists on the nature of matter, the plurality of worlds, the vastness of space and time had been treasured and built upon, if the innovative technology of Archimedes had been taught and emulated, if the notion of invariable laws of Nature that humans must seek out and understand had been widely propagated—I wonder what kind of world we would live in now.[iv]
It is conceivable then that had science continued to advance for those thousand years we would now live longer and better lives, or perhaps science might have conquered death altogether by now. It is conceivable we are not now immortal today because of the rise of religion. Granted such conjecture is speculative—our example may seem fantastic—but certainly the rise of religion was a major factor impeding scientific advance throughout the Middle Ages and its stifling effect on scientific advance may still be felt today.
The point is that religious belief is not innocuous. Religion may cause less harm today than it did in the medieval period, but this may be more a function of it having less power than it had previously. If that power were regained, we should not be surprised if the effect were again disastrous. (Anyone familiar with the Middle Ages does not long to go back.) We all may have paid, and could continue to pay, a heavy price for the consolation that religious beliefs provides to so many.
Thus religious beliefs are problematic and living as if religion is true is probably ill-advised. Although any religious story could be true, especially in their more sophisticated versions, religious answers to deep questions are suspect because the truth of religion and its usefulness are suspect.
[iv] Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).